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writer of the first travel story by an American to be published in the United States
John Ledyard was born in Groton, Connecticut, in 1751; his mother moved the family to Southold, Connecticut, in 1762. He entered Dartmouth College in the spring of 1772, but left after a few months to explore the wilderness and live among the Indians. He returned to Dartmouth the following year, but once again left after a few months, this time taking off down the Connecticut River in a dugout canoe he had made by hand. After another period of wandering he undertook to become a minister, but his study of theology lasted but a few weeks before he signed on as a seaman on a vessel bound for the Mediterranean.
Upon reaching Gibraltar, Ledyard enlisted in a British regiment, but he was released a year later and returned to Connecticut. After spending some time with friends and relatives Ledyard again set out for adventure. He made his way to London, where he met Captain James Cook, who was about to set sail on his third (and ultimately final) voyage of exploration. Ledyard signed up as a corporal of marines and sailed with Cook on July 12, 1776. Ledyard was part of the first British party to reach Nootka Sound and Alaska, and it was during this voyage that Cook "discovered" the Sandwich (now Hawaiian) Islands. Cook was killed by cannibals in the Sandwich Islands on February 14, 1779; the expedition returned to London on October 6, 1780.
Ledyard spent the next two years serving in the British Navy, but he refused to fight against his countrymen and spent most of that time confined to barracks. He did not return to the United States until December 1782, when the ship on which he was serving anchored at Huntington, Connecticut; he jumped ship soon after reaching American waters.
After the war, Ledyard published his account of the Pacific voyage -- the first great travel story by an American to be published in the United States.
Never one to stay in one place for long, Ledyard next tried to raise money for an expedition to cross the United States from west to east, but was unable to do so. On June 1, 1784, he wrote his mother that he was going to sail for Europe and perhaps undertake a voyage around the world. He sailed first to Spain, and from there he made his way to Paris, where he met Thomas Jefferson and John Paul Jones. At first, both were enthusiastic about the project and detailed plans were made, but Jones finally decided that the expedition was too risky and no money was ever actually put forward.
A disappointed Ledyard then resolved to walk alone across northern Europe and Asia in order to reach North America on foot. He set out in 1786 from Hamburg, Germany, reached St. Petersburg, Russia, on March 20, 1787, and had made it all the way to Irkutsk in Siberia before he was suddenly arrested by the Russians, who accused him of being a French spy. The Russians took him back almost 4,000 miles and let him go just across the Polish border. Ledyard returned to London early in May 1788, penniless and extremely disappointed.
Ledyard's disappointment was short-lived, however. Two months after his return, he received financial backing to find the source of the Niger River in Africa. He reached Cairo, Egypt, on August 19, 1788, where he was successful in joining a caravan about to start for the interior. Ledyard was taken ill before the caravan left, however, and he died in Cairo on January 10, 1789.
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This page was last updated on 01/10/2018.